Essential oils, the fragrant, concentrated liquids extracted from the flowers, leaves, roots, bark, and fruit of an aromatic plant, are the main ingredients in aromatherapy treatments. Each oil has a unique scent as well as constituents that can treat many different conditions. The essential oils profiled on this page are among the most common, commercially available oils, and they are very versatile. The profiles will tell you about each oil’s therapeutic and cosmetic uses, scent, and principal constituents. You’ll also find some intriguing myths and folklore associated with the oils.
Whether you’re a veteran or a beginner just getting started, these profiles will help you get more acquainted with the building blocks of aromatherapy.
Bergamot is used as an additive in teas, beverages and candies. This essential oil is also used for fighting viruses like the flu.
Have you ever enjoyed a cup of Earl Grey tea? What makes this tea unique is the addition of bergamot essential oil, which flavors many beverages and candies. Bergamot’s deep citrusy fragrance is also a popular component of men’s fragrances, and widely used in aromatherapy.
A small citrus tree originally from tropical Asia, it produces the round, green fruit whose oils are expressed from the rinds before ripening. While not edible or pretty, they smell truly wonderful!
We are all familiar with the birch tree and the wildly popular birch beer. You can also use this essential oil to relieve muscle pain and stiffness.
The scent and flavor of birch has been a European and North American Indian favorite for centuries. Birch drinks were favored by those suffering from consumption because the natural aspirin, methyl salicylate, in the essential oil relieves pain and makes it easier to breathe.
Birch has many aromatherapy applications. This essential oil was the closely guarded secret ingredient in the formula for the popular nineteenth-century men’s fragrance Russian Leather, so named because the Russians used it to keep leather book bindings soft and free from insects and mold. European women scented their handkerchiefs in a perfume called Iceland Wintergreen that included birch and other essential oils.
This tree can grow to over 100 feet in height, but its essential oil is used in very small amounts to treat congestion.
This majestic tree was used to build King Solomon’s temple because its fragrance was thought to lead worshipers to prayer and thus closer to God. The tree grows to 100 feet in height, lives more than 1,000 years, and resists insect damage. The ancient Egyptians used cedar as a preservative and for embalming, in cosmetics, and as incense.
More commonly, cedar is included in men’s colognes and aftershaves and is used to make cigar boxes, cedar chests, and panel closets. Cedarwood and its essential oil make clothes smell great, and on a practical level, they repel wool moths. Cedarwood has many aromatherapy applications.
Chamomile is a common variety of tea, but these fragrant flowers and also used to treat depression.
Chamomile’s flowers resemble tiny daisies, but one sniff will have you thinking of apples instead. The herb has long been grown for its healing properties. Its smell was thought to relieve depression and to encourage relaxation. Medieval monks planted raised garden beds of chamomile, and those who were sad or depressed lay on them as therapy. Chamomile also was once a strewing herb, spread on bare floors so that the scent was released when people walked on it.
Drinking chamomile tea made from the flowers stimulates appetite before meals; after meals it settles the stomach. Roman chamomile (Camaemelum nobile, formerly Anthemis nobilis) yields a pale yellow essential oil that is an anti-inflammatory. When German chamomile is distilled, a chemical reaction produces the deep blue-green chamazulene that is even more potent an anti-inflammatory.
Cinnamon is a common kitchen ingredient that can also be used in aromatherapy to reduce drowsiness and irritability.
The simple powder used in cooking starts off as the dry inner bark of a large 20-to-30-foot tree most likely growing in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). The Arabs, who first brought cinnamon to the West, created a myth to frighten away rival traders, saying it could only be gathered in marshes from the nest of the great phoenix that was guarded by winged serpents and bats!
The Portuguese finally seized Ceylon in 1505, but the plants were such coveted commodities that the Dutch later conquered the country, followed by the British in 1798. Today, cinnamon’s aromatherapy properties are well known.
This essential oil has been rumored to treat a variety of conditions, but is mostly commonly used to relieve muscle and nervous tension.
In ancient times, clary sage was praised as a panacea with the ability to render man immortal. Clary sage’s name is derived from the Latin word clarus, meaning clear. The tea was once thought not only to clear eyesight and the brain, but also to clarify one’s intuition and allow one to see more clearly into the future.
Simply sniffing the oil before going to bed can produce dramatic dreams and, when you awake, a euphoric state of mind. Clary was an important ingredient in one of the most popular European cordials. Along with elderflowers, it still flavors high quality Muscatel wine and Italian vermouth.
Cloves are another spice that can be found in many recipes. In aromatherapy, the clove can be used as an antiseptic and pain-reliever.
In ancient China, courtiers at the Han court held cloves in their mouths to freshen their breath before they had an audience with the emperor. Today, cloves are still used to sweeten breath. Modern dental preparations numb tooth and gum pain and quell infection with clove essential oil or its main constituent, eugenol. Simply inhaling the fragrance was once said to improve eyesight and fend off the plague.
Clove’s scent developed a reputation, now backed by science, for being stimulating. The fragrance was also believed to be an aphrodisiac. Cloves were so valuable that a Frenchman risked his life to steal a clove tree from the Dutch colonies in Indonesia and plant it in French ground.
The cypress tree is typically found in the Mediterranean region. Its essential oil can be used to treat low blood pressure and poor circulation.
The landscapes of southern France and Greece are graced with this statuesque evergreen, which first came from the island of Cyprus where it was worshiped as a representation of the goddess Beruth. The tree appears in art and literature as an emblem of generation, death, the immortal soul, and woe. This long association with mortality continues today, for modern Egyptians use cypress wood for coffins, while the French and Americans plant it in graveyards.
Greeks say that cypress clears the mind during stressful times and comforts mourners. Cypress stanches bleeding (Hippocrates recommended it for hemorrhoids) and the Chinese chewed its small cones, rich in essential oils and astringents, to heal bleeding gums.
The eucalyptus tree is typically found in Australia. Its essential oil can be used to treat flu, fever, and sort throat.
Australia’s blue forests are named for the haze produced by the tree’s essential oil. When you walk through the groves, the blue mist that mutes the surrounding scenery can be almost intoxicating. One can’t help but take deep breaths of its refreshing scent, which is perhaps why aromatherapists use it to clear the air, helping to resolve disagreements in interpersonal conflicts.
Eucalyptus or gum trees originated in Australia and Tasmania, but they are now found in subtropical regions all over the globe. They are one of the tallest and fastest growing trees. The eucalyptus tree was introduced at the Paris Exposition in 1867 after the director of the botanical gardens in Melbourne, Australia, suggested that the essential oil might be an antiseptic replacement for cajeput oil. He was right.
Fir trees are better known to most people as the typical Christmas tree. The pleasing smell of the fir tree’s essential oil can soothe muscle and rheumatism pain.
The frankincense burned as church incense today is the same as that used by ancient peoples who inhabited the Middle East and North Africa. Eventually the use of frankincense spread throughout Europe and eastward into India, and it was burned as an offering to the gods of many cultures. It was one of the four sweet scents; used by Jews in their ceremonial incense, and it was presented each Sabbath day with the shewbread. For Christians it was one of the three precious gifts brought by the Magi to the infant Jesus.
Exceeding the value of precious metals and gems, frankincense was only produced by 3,000 families called Sabians from the land of Punt. The men chosen to prune and gather frankincense gum had to undergo ritual purification. Frankincense was so greatly valued because its fragrance was believed to heighten spirituality, sending one into a deep, meditative relaxation that enhanced worship.
Geraniums are familiar flowers that can be found in many yards throughout the country. This perennial plant can also be used to treat a variety of skin conditions and infections.
In experimental outpatient clinics in Azerbaijan, patients sit comfortably in an aromatherapy room sniffing fragrant plants such as rose geranium. They inhale the aromas according to a prescription, which specifies how many times a week and for how many minutes the fragrance should be inhaled. According to the clinic, inhaling geranium actually lowers or raises blood pressure a few points, depending upon what the person’s body requires. They also report success in using geranium to control depression and mental disturbances.
A relative newcomer to the fragrance trade, geranium is a small, tender, South African perennial whose essential oil was not distilled until the nineteenth century. Since it is a veritable medicine cabinet with a lovely scent, it became an instant hit. It is also an insect repellent, and one that is certainly more aromatically pleasing than the commonly used citronella.
Most of us have experienced ginger in baked goods or Asian-inspired recipes. This plant can also be used to stimulate the appetite and relieve headaches.
You have certainly encountered ginger’s succulent, spicy rhizome in the grocery store. Used fresh, or dried and powdered for a culinary spice, it flavors ginger ale, cakes, and cookies and is a major ingredient in curries and other Eastern cuisines. The Chinese scholar Confucius ate fresh ginger with every meal.
Since it was one of the earliest herbs transported in the spice trade, it is now difficult to determine if ginger originated in India or China. One ancient Indian trading city was named Shunthi, the Sanskrit name for ginger. Ginger has many applications in aromatherapy.
The beautiful jasmine flower has been used to make everything from tea to perfume. Its essential oil can also be used in aromatherapy to calm the nerves and treat depression and insomnia.
Probably an Iranian native, jasmine, whose name means heavenly felicity, has captured the imagination of poets and perfumers for thousands of years. In China it was used to scent and flavor jasmine tea. Jasmine’s aromatherapy applications and uses for the essential oil are many.
The small white flowers of this vinelike evergreen shrub, with their intriguing, complex scent, are intensely fragrant and found in most great perfumes. Jasmine is also known as mistress of the night and moonlight of the grove, because its seductive scent reaches its peak late at night.
The juniper berry is standard ingredient in gin. While most people might view this as medicine, the juniper berry’s essential oil can also be massaged in the skin to treat arthritis, varicose veins, and other conditions.
Gin was named after genièvre, the French word for juniper berry, which gives gin its characteristic flavor. The British said that an infusion of berries could restore lost youth; however, juniper’s more important role was for protection. It traditionally was planted at the entrance of homes to guard against evil and ghosts.
Burning the branches was found to ward off contagious diseases, so medieval physicians chewed the berries while on duty and burned the branches in hospitals. In World War II, the French returned to burning juniper in hospitals as an antiseptic when their supply of drugs ran low. Juniper berry essential oil has myriad aromatherapy applications.
Lavender has been used for century in a number of religious and cosmetic preparations. Today, you can use this essential oil to relieve muscle pain, migraines, and sinus infections.
A well-loved Mediterranean herb, lavender has been associated with cleanliness since Romans first added it to their bathwater. In fact, the name comes from the Latin lavandus, meaning to wash. A Christian legend says that lavender originally had no odor, but since the Virgin Mary dried Jesus’s swaddling clothes on it, it has had a heavenly perfume. Essential oil of lavender is now known to have many application in aromatherapy.
Today lavender remains a favorite for scenting clothing and closets, soaps, and even furniture polish. Lavender was traditionally inhaled to ease exhaustion, insomnia, irritability, and depression. In the Victorian era, women revived themselves from faints caused by tight corsets with lavender-filled swooning pillows.
What more can be said about lemons? They’re used in all sorts of recipes from salad dressings to lemonade. The strong citrus smell of the lemon essential oil is also used to treat sore throats, coughs, and other infections.
The lemon tree hails from Asia, but has been cultivated in Italy since at least the fourth century. It is now grown throughout the Mediterranean, Australia, Central and South America, California, and Florida.
Most people would immediately describe lemon as having a “clean” smelling fragrance. As a result, it is used in a vast number of household cleaning products that are advertised as “lemon-fresh” and “sparkling.” Aromatherapists use the tie-in with cleanliness to help people purge feelings of imperfection and impurity and to build up their confidence. Lemon essential oil is a major ingredient in commercial beverages, foods, and pharmaceuticals, although the cheaper lemongrass or even synthetic citral is often added to stretch it. It also is popular for its fresh aroma in cologne and many cosmetics, especially cleansing creams and lotions.
Lemon grass is a standard ingredient in traditional Southeast Asian cuisine, but it also gives Ivory Soap its familiar smell. Learn how lemon grass can be used a pain-reliever.
What gives Ivory Soap its familiar scent? The not-so-familiar lemongrass essential oil. A fast-growing, tall perennial grass originally from India and Sri Lanka, lemongrass found its way into traditional cuisines throughout Southeast Asia. It is used extensively in Thai fish soups and curries and is seen more and more frequently in supermarkets in North America in aromatherapy and other products.
An important medicinal and culinary herb in South and Central America, South East Asia, and the Caribbean, it is widely known as “fever grass.” India’s Ayurvedic medical tradition, for instance, has long used it to treat cholera and fevers. A relatively inexpensive essential oil, it’s often the source of the lemon scent found in cosmetics and hair preparations. Its pleasant, clean fragrance is also incorporated into soaps, perfumes, and deodorants, and it flavors many canned and frozen foods. No wonder it is one of the ten best-selling essential oils in the world.
Marjoram has many sedative qualities, including eases stiff joints, muscle spasms, and headaches.
“Sweet marjoram” is a low, bushy perennial native to Asia but naturalized in Europe, where singers learned to preserve and strengthen their voices with the honeyed tea. Traditionally it was given to those who felt unstable, physically debilitated, or irritable. Ancient Greeks planted the herb on their ancestors’ graves to ensure them a peaceful sleep. The Romans said that the goddess Venus used marjoram to cure her son Eros’ wounds and that it was scentless until she touched it. Marjoram is probably what is called “hyssop” in the Bible, where it is noted for personal cleansing and purification of the temples. Marjoram had a reputation for endowing longevity and was an antidote to serpent poison. The greenish-yellow essential oil is distilled from the plant’s flowering tops. Its taste and properties are milder than the closely related oregano, which is so strong and potentially toxic that it is seldom used in aromatherapy.
Principal constituents of marjoram: Carvacrol, thymol, borneol, camphor, linalol, linalyl acetate, cineol, cymeme, sabinene, and terpineol
Myrrh has been used since antiquity as incense in religious ceremonies. This essential oil can also be used to treat chapped, cracked, or aging skin.
Myrrh has been used in aromatherapy since antiquity as an incense to inspire prayer and meditation and to fortify the spirit. This small, scrubby, spiny tree from the semidesert regions of the Middle East and North East Africa is not very handsome, but it makes up for its looks with the precious gum it exudes.
An important trade item for several thousand years, myrrh was a primary ingredient in ancient cosmetics and incenses. The Egyptians mummified their dead with it, while other cultures burned it in cremations. Believed to comfort sorrow, its name means “bitter tears.” This may also refer to the bitter-tasting myrrh sap, which oozes in tearlike drops when the tree’s bark is cut. Myrrh was added to wine by both the Greeks and Hebrews to heighten their sensual awareness. The yellow to amber-colored essential oil is distilled from the gum and frequently added to toothpastes and gum preparations to help alleviate mouth ulcers, gum inflammation, and infection.
Neroli might be an unfamiliar name, but its essential oil is used in many perfumes and beauty products. Learn how to use neroli to improve circulation and skin health.
An Indochina native, the bitter orange produces the blossoms used for an essential oil known to aromatherapists and perfumers as neroli. The trees are grown commercially in France, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt and are quite different from the sweet orange that produces orange oil. One story is that neroli was named after a sixteenth century princess from Nerola, Italy, who loved the orange blossom scent.
This scent, which is considered intensely female, became a symbol of purity, chastity, and eternal love. Neroli was thought to influence creativity in other ways, especially in music and writing. Modern aromatherapists regard neroli more as a treatment for depression. The blossoms may be distilled, made into a concrete by enfleurage, or extracted with solvents to create an absolute. A by-product of distillation, “orange flower water,” is used in cooking and as a skin toner.
Yep, we’re talking about good-old-fashioned, vitamin-c-laden, oranges. Find out how this fruit’s essential oil can be used to alter moods and lower high blood pressure.
Brought to the Mediterranean from Asia by the Saracens during the time of the crusades, the familiar sweet orange used in aromatherapy now comes from Sicily, Israel, Spain, and the U.S., each country’s essential oil offering slightly different characteristics. They are rich in vitamins A, B, and C, flavonoids, and minerals. The Chinese, however, correctly warned in the Chu-lu — the first monograph describing the various citruses that was written in 1178 — that they can increase lung congestion.
Oranges were considered symbols of fruitfulness, and the Greeks called them the “golden apple of the Hesperides.” The god Zeus is said to have given an orange to his bride Hera at their wedding.
Long associated with hippies, patchouli oil has long been used as a perfume. The patchouli essential oil can also be used as a cell rejuvenator and as an antifungal treatment.
In India this essential oil with the lyrical name of patcha pat has long been used to keep moths and other insects out of linens and woolen shawls and rugs. It is the characteristic scent found in Indian bedspreads and cottons. Hand-woven silk and wool rugs from Persia, India, and Turkey had dried patchouli leaves laid on them before they were rolled for shipping. Europeans actually refused to buy cheaper local imitation Oriental rugs because they didn’t smell authentic.
To some people the scent of patchouli is exotic, sensual, and luxurious, but to others it’s too forceful and repellent. It is so overpowering that most aromatherapy cosmetics forgo its virtues in favor of other essential oils that are more universally appealing. The leaves of this pretty Malaysian bush carry little indication of their potential, since the scent is only developed through oxidation. The leaves must be fermented and aged before being distilled, which can take as long as 24 hours. Even then, the translucent yellow oil smells harsh.
Peppermint is one of the most widely used aromatic oils in both edible and non edible preparations. Peppermint’s essential oil is also commonly used as digestion aid.
The most widely used of all aromatic essential oils, peppermint makes a grand and obvious appearance in all sorts of edible and nonedible products, including beverages, ice cream, sauces and jellies, liqueurs, medicines, dental preparations, aromatherapy preparations, cleaners, cosmetics, tobacco, desserts, and gums.
It was known to the Egyptians, who dedicated mint to the god Horus. The Romans personified it as Minthe or Mentha, the beautiful naiad loved by Pluto, god of the underworld. When Pluto’s queen, Proserpine, saw what was going on she jealously trampled Minthe, transforming her into the lowly plant. But Pluto decreed that the more mint was walked on the sweeter it would smell.
The smell of the rose has been celebrated for centuries, and it is commonly associated with romance and special occasions. The rose’s essential oil can also be used to treat cuts burns, a number of skin problems.
The fragrance of rose has long inspired poets and lovers. One legend says the red rose came from the blood of the Greek love goddess Aphrodite. The name of Aphrodite’s son Eros, god of love, is an anagram for rose. Folktales that come from China to Europe tell similar stories about the rose’s symbolism as the unfolding of both spiritual and physical love and perfection.
Originally from Asia Minor, the plant was brought by Turkish merchants to Bulgaria, where the most valued essential oil is now produced. It is gentle and nontoxic but costly, because so little can be made during distillation and because the bushes need so much care.
The popular spice rosemary can also be an integral ingredient in many massage oils and body soaks.
The ancients believed that rosemary strengthened memory, and thus it became an emblem of fidelity, important at both weddings and funerals. The smoke was inhaled to protect against brain weakness and dizziness, and the herb was burned in schools and universities to inspire the pupils. Japanese researchers have preliminary evidence that rosemary does indeed improve memory. Rosemary was burned by the poor instead of frankincense; the old French name for it, incensier, came from rosemary’s celebrated history as church incense.
Until the twentieth century, the fragrant branches were burned in French hospitals, with juniper, to purify the air. Rosemary also made its impression on early cosmetics; it was the main ingredient in the famous fourteenth century “Hungary Water,” which is still available today. This Mediterranean native with tiny, pale blue flowers that bloom in late winter loves growing by the ocean — its name rosmarinus means “dew of the sea.” It is cultivated worldwide for aromatherapy and other uses, although France, Spain, and Tunisia are the main producers of the essential oil.
The sandalwood essential oil is derived from the sandalwood tree that goes through an elaborate manufacturing process. This essential oil can be used to treat infections and counter inflammation.
Sandalwood essential oil is distilled from the roots and heartwood of trees that take 50 to 80 years to reach full maturity. In an amazing and lengthy manufacturing process used since ancient times, the mature sandalwood trees are cut down, then left to be eaten by ants, which consume all but the fragrant heartwood and roots. Every part of the heartwood is used, including the sawdust.
The scent, called chandana, is in aromatherapy used to induce a calm and meditative state. The lasting fragrance only improves with age. According to mythology, sandalwood originally grew only in heaven’s gardens. Temple gates and religious statues are carved from the wood because of this spiritual association, the exquisite scent, and because it is impermeable to termites and other insects.
Tea tree oil is sometimes called a “medicine cabinet in a bottle.” Learn how this essential oil can treat bacteria, fungi, viruses, and stimulate the immune system.
On his first voyage to Australia, Captain Cook made a sharp-tasting tea from tea tree leaves and later used them in brewing beer. Eventually the leaves and then the essential oil were used to purify water. Australian soldiers and sailors used the essential oil as an all-purpose healing agent during World War II. Today, tee tree is used in aromatherapy and other preparations.
It’s only recently, however, that essential oil companies have begun touting tea tree’s healing properties. Medical journal articles support reports of its ability to heal mouth infections, and its primary use is in products for gum infection and canker sores, germicidal soaps, and deodorants.
While thyme is usually associated with the kitchen, it also has many aromatherapy applications. Learn how this essential oil can be used to fight infections.
Most people consider this low-growing perennial evergreen no more than a culinary seasoning, yet its fragrance led Rudyard Kipling to write of “our close-bit thyme that smells like dawn in paradise.” Ancient Greeks so highly regarded its aroma that to compliment someone they would say the person smelled like thyme. Thyme essential oil is widely used in aromatherapy today.
Thymain, a derivative of the name, described burning incense, and the “art of using perfumes as medicine”was known as thymiatechny. The word thyme also relates to strength, spirit, or courage — attributes thought to be imparted to anyone who sniffed its fragrant leaves. Medieval ladies sent a sprig of the herb with their knights to instill these virtues in them during travel and battle.
The ylang ylang plant was originally cultivated in the Philippines, but it soon made its way around the world because of its distinctive scent and beautiful appearance. Learn how this plant’s essential oil is used to relax both the mind and body.
Originating in the Philippines, ylang ylang means “flower of flowers” or “fragrance of all fragrances.” This fragrance is traditionally used in aromatherapy to sharpen the senses and to temper depression, fear, anger, and jealousy. For these reasons, and also because of its reputation as an aphrodisiac, the flowers are spread on the beds of the newly married in Indonesia.
Modern aromatherapists find the scent strongly sedating, easily sending the most reluctant sleeper off to dreamland. Science, on the other hand, regards ylang ylang essential oil more as a mental stimulant. Can it be both? Quite possibly it stimulates people’ s minds in one way while relaxing them in another.